I came home from my last trip with almost 20,000 photographs, which is, by any standard, a whole lot of photographs. I edited them down to about 30.
That’s 19,970 images that didn’t make the cut.
If I looked at every one of those photographs for only three seconds, it would take me 1,000 minutes, or almost 16 hours, to do the edit. I like my photographs, but I don’t know anyone who likes their photographs enough to spend 16 hours doing that without going a little cross-eyed.
Making a photograph requires work done with the camera, editing out the best of that work, and (usually) some kind of work in post-production, not to mention printing and book-making and other means of sharing that work. By editing I don’t mean post-production, but the often-painful process of deciding which images make the cut and which do not.
“Is it this one, or this one? This one? No, wait, maybe this one? Aw, hell, maybe they’re all crap.” Sound familiar?
Put your hand in the air if editing is your favourite part.
No one? That’s what I thought.
Many photographers find the edit the hardest part. I have a friend who dislikes the edit so much she’s sitting on years of unedited images. I know countless other photographers who have told me that’s the edit is the most overwhelming to them. That’s almost always the word: overwhelming.
So how do we make this less overwhelming? We could make fewer photographs, I suppose, but that’s never worked for me.
I make loads of sketch images and rely on those efforts to stimulate my creative process and encourage risk and play. Making fewer images would hamper my creativity. Instead I rely on some other ideas to make the edit more bearable—certainly faster and easier. Here are some of those practices, in hopes they can make editing less overwhelming for you.
Do More Than One Edit
If you thought you had only one shot at editing your work, it would be easy to see this as overwhelming. I mean, what if you miss one? I plan to do three edits on any work I do. The first happens as soon as I can; the second happens when I’ve had some time and space to think a little more clearly, instead of just looking for that one image I’m really excited about (but maybe also a little blinded by). And then I do an edit much further out. So for me, this is often the first edit on the day I shoot (or within a day or two), then another in a couple weeks or months, and a third in a year or so. The pressure is less, and I almost always find images on subsequent edits that I’d have missed on the first even if I paid much more attention. Time gives us a bit of perspective and changes the expectations we have as we look at the photographs.
Your edit will differ depending on your needs. Client work can introduce pressures and certain criteria that might not be there in your personal work, but I do this to make work I love, not work that’s only just OK. If it’s not a “Hell, yes” or something I can put five stars on, I skip it. It’s either a Hit or a Miss. And that’s how I look at my images: I scan until something catches my eye. Maybe it’s colour. Maybe an interesting composition, but it’s got to grab me. This immediately makes things easier. I’m not looking for every single image that is average or just a little better, but the ones that make me feel something. Will I miss images this way? Of course. That’s why I do two more edits.
Edit With Vision
I find it helpful to know what I’m choosing the images for. I like to shoot in bodies of work, around a theme. I like that constraint. It not only helps me make more focused work, but it also makes the edit easier. If I know I’m looking for images that work well in monochrome, it helps me pick the strongest images. If editing is a question of choosing the “best” image in a series, then it helps to be able to answer this question: best at what? Are you looking for a vertical cover image? It helps to know that. Are you looking for a single image or a sequence? It helps to know that, too. Was there a particular theme you were trying to explore or some specific vision you were following? You can’t make strong editing choices without knowing that.
Pick A Number
Some of you will roll your eyes at this one, but it works for me. I pick a number. It is infinitely easier for me to edit 20,000 images down if I know I need 12. You could choose 9 or 37. I like increments of 12 and have no idea why. But I keep the number small. Twelve images from a one-week trip is good as a start. If it was a portrait session, perhaps six. Or three. The number keeps the pressure off. It’s rare that I can’t find 12 images I love—at least initially—after a week. But it also forces me to be ruthless with my edit. It forces me to choose only the best. Not that I delete the ones that don’t make the 12, but the search for only those 12 helps me see my images more honestly, rather than convincing myself that 300 of them are fantastic.
Is It Print-Worthy?
When I come back from a trip or a portrait session in my studio, I do my edits so that as soon as possible, I can fire up the printer and print at least an 8×10 (actually, 8.5×11) or larger. Many a time, my finger hovered over that print button, wondering if the image was really worth the paper. When that happens, it’s a good sign that it’s not the strongest image—so I move it to the back of the print queue and reconsider it. I don’t necessarily toss it from the edit; I just make sure I’m clear on why I included it in the first place.
I think one of the reasons editing is so hard is that we get paralyzed by choice.
But remember, you’re not deleting your un-chosen images. You’re just looking for the 12 that jump out at you today. The ones that make you smile or accomplish the thing for which you made them. The others are still there and will be waiting when you come back to look at them again in a week or a month, or maybe a year.
We all have to figure out what we’re looking for, and that is also one of the challenges. I found it much easier when I started to edit with that in mind and stopped approaching the process as though I had an obligation to choose every single image that might not suck.
As with any creative endeavour, constraints help. Look for three images that grab you, or eight. That’s not so overwhelming, right? It’s better than just never doing it. Or worse, hating the process. Find a way to do it that allows you to feel the kind of excitement you associate with other parts of making your photographs.
You don’t have to do it all at once; you’re allowed to change your mind later. And if it’s down to a choice between two images that are really close and you can’t decide, just pick one. You’ll either be relieved to have made the choice or you’ll immediately regret it and then you’ll know which one you prefer after all.
Your way doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s, certainly not like mine, but I’m hoping these ideas give you a little more freedom and joy.
Whatever you do, find a way to associate the editing process with creativity and possibility, not obligation and dread. Be playful about it.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more? This email goes out to a whole lot of people and I don’t know you all, but in case we’re new to each other and you like the way I approach this craft, there’s more where this came from.
You can find my collection of eBooks at CraftandVision.com, or my best-selling books about the craft and creative process of photography on Amazon. The Heart of the Photograph is my most recent, it pairs beautifully with The Soul of the Camera, and the 10th anniversary edition of Within The Frame, one of the best-selling photography books of the last 11 years, is still as relevant as it was when it first came out. And for those of you that have been reading my books faithfully for years, I hope you know how deep my gratitude runs. Thank you.